The Palace Papers (Image: Archi Banal)
The Palace Papers (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksMay 31, 2022

Hold onto your hats, it’s a review of The Palace Papers

The Palace Papers (Image: Archi Banal)
The Palace Papers (Image: Archi Banal)

Linda Burgess wolfs down the new blockbuster of a royal bio by Tina Brown. 

You’ve known them all your life and they’re there for the long haul. Can the British monarchy survive? So asks the anguished blurbist on the back of The Palace Papers. Can’t see why not, is the simple answer. 

I was emailing a friend the other night, we were going back and forward in a pleasurable fashion, when she wrote “Turkish proverb – he who gossips with you will gossip about you.” To which I replied, well good luck to them to find anything to gossip about. Oh you’ll have secrets, she said, to which I replied, I wish. 

I love gossip, but I’m going to define the word quite narrowly. It’s not about secrets. It’s not about innuendo, or making something up about someone or taking something out of context and leaking it to social media. What gossip is about is looking at the human condition and shredding it, turning it over, thinking about it, and applying your best theory to the issue, or better still, the personality, at hand. It’s sociological analysis. The best sort is never about which film star is beating up his / her / their partner, it’s about people that you know and find fascinating enough to talk about, to scrutinise, endlessly. Like literary fiction, gossip is more about character than plot.

Tina Brown’s book couldn’t be further from the clickbait that appears on the right side of your computer screen, implying, say, that William has had an affair and this is how Kate got her revenge. Tina Brown knows many of us know the royal family as well as – no, better than – we know our own families. Apart from my siblings, all living on the other side of the world for decades, and thus almost strangers, I have known no one else as long as I’ve known the Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Andrew and Edward were Johnny-come-latelys, an embarrassing indicator that the Queen still had sex.

The whole fam in 1972 (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I get through a book or two a week and there’s some excellent reads at the moment. Sarah Moss and Tessa Hadley have recently entrapped me, not to mention Kirsten McDougall and good old David Sedaris. But nothing – nothing – has grabbed me like Tina Brown inserting her clever clogs self into the House of Windsor. How could I not be enthralled with a book that starts with her recalling her research for her book on Princess Diana that took her “to the fading walk-up flats in far-flung London postal codes of former courtiers and retainers. The smell of their stair carpet always filled me with gloom, a waft of downward mobility and pointless, genteel sacrifice.” My feet were up on the sofa and there they stayed for hours.

We’re looking at the past 25 years in the lives of the world’s most closely observed family. The fact that they have been so scrutinised means that in many ways Brown is not telling us anything that we don’t know already. I could give you a little test: too honourable a person? Tampon … ? Rottweiler? Whatever love means? Still throwing spears? Three of us in that marriage? Not my hand? No one ever asked how I was? Annus horribilis? I’ve got a lot of my mother in me? Recollections may vary?  It took me 20 seconds to think of those and truly I could fill several pages with such things without much reflection at all. 

What Tina Brown has in her favour is – are, actually – lots of things. Anyone who was editor-in-chief of Tatler (aged 25), AND Vanity Fair AND The New Yorker will know how to write. What’s more, they’ll know exactly who to talk to. It will never be the ubiquitous “palace insider”, “someone anonymous close to the royal family”. 

I did briefly worry that I only really enjoy something when I agree with them. She knows Andrew is an utter oaf – well, who doesn’t. In his ability to say appalling things he’s like his father, but unlike his father, who had wit and brains, spread his prejudices with great equalness, was not solipsistic, and who has been redeemed by dying, Andrew’s stupid and immoral to the bone. And Brown’s very clear on how Meghan’s understanding of what being a princess entailed – summed up I reckon by those pictures of the newlyweds driving through immaculate parklands in an open carriage – was far from what she came to see was the case: a family, totally loaded, who were inexplicably living a frugal existence. A family who was, as Brown says, stalked, hacked and eavesdropped on. I was most interested to see how Meghan is portrayed, because as was the case with Camilla before her slow and steady rehabilitation, Meghan is an easy and attractive villain. Brown writes about her with restrained sympathy; basically, she says, after the wedding, when Meghan no longer had a personal identity, she also didn’t have a brand. Clearly the Queen attempted to assist with this, making her among others things Patron of the National Theatre. 

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex behold a kiwi in Aotearoa in 2018 (Photo: Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage via Getty Images)

With Harry we see Brown almost ruefully explaining how, like Meghan, he was “number six on the call sheet.” What he loved doing, being a soldier, was fraught due to his profile, which made him and everyone around him a target. The military was finally not available to him as a career because the natural trajectory is to become an officer and, as Diana herself said, he wasn’t all that bright. Even Eton couldn’t add to his grey matter, it would’ve been too cruel to even attempt to get him into university. It’s bizarre to think that instead he was a soldier, spending at least some of his time shooting people – he’s killed other people’s sons for god’s sake – and some of his time being a nice bloke to sporty soldiers who’d had bits blown off them by whoever the enemy was at the time. When he was forced to get out of his camouflage gear and go back to being a prince, he was not clever enough to realise that he’d gone far enough down the list – from third in line to sixth – to stop mattering. He simply did not have much power when it came to negotiation. Meghan’s problem, given that she knew the power of celebrity in the US, was not grasping how different it was being a royal. From anything else, really.

Brown highlights the importance of two things: first, family. The Duke of Edinburgh, whose mother became a nun, survived a childhood which was the equivalent of living on an active volcano. But this was in the days when the press were effectively the royal family’s PR company and being a handsome war hero did the trick. Don’t bother mentioning the Nazi relations, and finally they’ll stop finding “Phil the Greek” funny. He learnt to out-racist the racists, it’s a useful technique. But both Kate and Camilla, royal partners in the age of supreme electronic shenanigans, come from grounded families who love them, support them, and are tight lipped. So both have a natural – or learned – inclination towards discretion. Never a hint of anything other than empathetic happiness on their faces.

The choice of spouse is crucial – they have to show dignity and support while accepting their role as a sacrificial lamb. Diana, so young, made it perfectly clear that a gloomy castle surrounded by deer wandering round waiting to have their heads mounted on a wall, was her idea of unbearable tedium. She blabbed. When Camilla, after Diana’s death, became public enemy number one she just retreated to her comfortable home for a year and caught up with her reading. Kate, now she’s Catherine, treads a faultless path in her high heels and beige stockings. Brown does hint at Kate’s murkier side, pondering if Kate’s changing universities, giving up her place at the more prestigious Edinburgh University for one at St Andrews, and delaying starting her studies until William arrived there, was a strategic move. Oh be careful what you wish for; even with upward mobility and a top post code, pointless genteel sacrifice might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. But at least with Kate, you got the sense that she’d read the job description and knew she fitted it. I won’t forget reading years ago that at school picnics the Middletons always had the most enviable hamper. In Kate’s middle class, strategic, perfect-picnic-planning hands, Brown believes, lies the saving of the monarchy. 

The Queen presents Prince Charles to the people at Caenarvan Castle after his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969. (Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Getty Images)

I know, you knew all this already, or don’t give a toss, but it’s such a good read. Thanks to her jobs over her lifetime, her knowledge of what makes the right contacts a treasure, her top brain, and her deep deep interest in this oddest of institutions, Brown comes across as extremely well informed. If just a tad too respectful.

It’s huge – just under 600 pages. There’s loads of stuff about the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret too, of course. They’re all there as it’s the women Brown is most interested in. The Queen is now a very old and frail woman. The Crown Prince, reunited with his true sweetheart, pinker-faced by the day, with finally his love of all things organic and his awareness of the dire state of the planet putting him in the fashionable team, is waiting tactfully for his crown. Very soon there’s going to be a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

I sent this book to a friend for a significant birthday, a friend who I counted on to adore it, and she emailed me the next day saying she was up to page 100 and she was devastated that there were only 500 pages to go. It’s that sort of book. This isn’t sniggering public shaming, this isn’t nudge nudge wink wink. This is a careful look at people who, so oddly, we know so well.  Even if you think the royal family are a huge waste of space, even if you’re a virtue signaller when it comes to the evils of gossip, go on. Give it a go. 

The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor – the Truth and the Turmoil, by Tina Brown (Century, $40) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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